Opera Scotland

Heather Harper Suggest updates

Heather Mary Harper (CBE 1965).

Born Belfast, 8 May 1930.

Died London, 22 April 2019.

Northern Irish soprano.

Heather Harper had a long and successful international career in both concert and opera. She was also one of the most successful and prolific recording artists of her generation, with many concert works from the central repertoire (eg Beethoven Missa Solemnis, Verdi Requiem, Mahler 8th Symphony) as well as 20th century British music (eg Delius Requiem, Howells Hymnus Paradisi, Britten War Requiem).

Early career

Harper trained in London at Trinity College of Music, initially piano, before adding voice. She also studied privately with Helene Isepp and Frederic Husler. Her operatic debut, in 1954, was with the Oxford University Opera Society, as Lady Macbeth. She also sang Violetta in a BBC studio production of La traviata., with Mimì in La bohème following a year later.

She first worked with Glyndebourne Opera by spending summer 1955 in the chorus, and returned to the Festival for First Lady The Magic Flute 1957, Anne Trulove The Rake's Progress in 1963, and a then rare staging of Handel's Jephtha in 1966.

With the New Opera Company, based at Sadler's Wells, she created Lucie Manette in Arthur Benjamin's A Tale of Two Cities (1958) and gave the British premiere of Erwartung (1960).

National and internatioal highlights

Her long association with Benjamin Britten and the English Opera Group ran from 1956 to the composer's death in 1976. She created the soprano solo in the premiere of the War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral (1962) when the Soviet authorities at short notice refused to let Galina Vishnevskaya travel west. In 1968 she sang Ellen Orford when a prestigious TV production of Peter Grimes was made. This led to her creating a role in his television opera Owen Wingrave in 1971, and she repeated the part of Mrs Coyle in its stage premiere at Covent Garden.

Harper first appeared with the Royal (Covent Garden) Opera in 1962, continuing regularly for the next couple of decades. Her repertoire there included Wagner (Elsa, Eva, Gutrune); Bizet (Micaëla); Offenbach (Antonia); Strauss ( Chrysothemis, Ariadne, Empress, Arabella), Poulenc (Blanche); Tippett (Hecuba, Nadia - premiere of The Ice Break) and Britten (Ellen Orford, Helena, Mrs Coyle), She appeared at La Scala Milan when the company included Peter Grimes on the 1976 exchange visit.

Outside the UK, operatic work included Bayreuth (Elsa 1967 and '68, under Kempe); Buenos Aires (Vitellia 1969, followed by Marguerite and Arabella); New York Met (Countess Almaviva in 1977, followed by Ellen Orford) and San Francisco (Charlotte).

Scottish performances

In Scotland, Harper's operatic appearances were infrequent and restricted to the Edinburgh Festival. She never worked with Scottish Opera. Her first visit to Edinburgh came for the 1955 Festival. She was a member of the Glyndebourne Chorus, so sang in the production of Falstaff. (The second work in the repertoire, Il barbiere di Siviglia only employs a male chorus). Her association with Benjamin Britten and the English Opera Group was long and fruitful, though Britten's arrangement of The Beggar's Opera was not entirely typical, even with Peter Pears and Janet Baker in the cast. In 1973, she began a four-year association with the Festival, and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Two years in Peter Ustinov's staging of Don Giovanni were followed by two in Sir Geraint Evans's production of Le nozze di Figaro. Both were recorded.

Her belated concert debut with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra came in March 1983, when Sir Alexander Gibson, in a rare guest appearance with the orchestra, had programmed the Berlioz Nuits d'été songs. The scheduled soloist, Jessye Norman, was indisposed, and Heather Harper took over. Audiences in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh were not short-changed.


Her recordings of opera and oratorio include Monteverdi (Ballo delle Ingrate); Handel (Israel in Egypt, MessiahJudas Maccabaeus, Theodora); Haydn (Creation, Seasons); Mozart (Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni); Tippett (King PriamIce Break), Britten (Peter Grimes, Rape of Lucretia, Turn of the Screw, Midsummer Night's Dream, Owen Wingrave).

Among the greatest of her recordings of concert works are Mahler's Eighth Symphony (conducted by Solti) and the War Requiiem conducted by Hickox.

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